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On Political Robots, Again, Or, Let’s Visit Uncanny Valley October 9, 2008

So the second debate is in the books, my friends, and it seems that McCain is not getting out the message as well as he might wish.

I have no doubt that some of the problem is related to McCain’s policies as he presents them…but to be completely honest, there may be an additional factor.

To put it as bluntly as possible: McCain looks a little…creepy.

And it’s not just me: The Girlfriend was mentioning how creepy he looked in the debate as we talked about it this morning. Ask around, and someone might describe him that way to you.

Why is that so, how is this observation going to affect McCain going forward; and most important of all…how does this connect to the Burger King and the design of video game characters?

To help answer the question, let me introduce you to Dr. Masahiro Mori.

In the 1970s, Dr. Mori, a Japanese roboticist, used psychological research to develop a theory that has become known as the “Uncanny Valley”.

To make a long story short, Dr. Mori compared human emotional reactions to various human and cartoon characters…and corpses…and created charts to display the various intensities of reactions to the movement and appearance of the characters and the corpses.

As it turns out, Mori’s research suggests humans react in a similar emotional manner to near-realistic human representations and corpses. In both cases, the emotional response seems to be revulsion.

This research has practical applications: it is reported that ASIMO, the humanoid robot developed by Honda, is intentionally designed with a blank face in order to avoid the Uncanny Valley problem. The design of artificial limbs is also impacted by this phenomenon.

(Additional research published in 2007 in MIT’s journal “Presence” seems to confirm Mori’s conclusions.)

There are some who seek to break through the Uncanny Valley barrier, most notably Hanson Robotics, with their Eva, Jules, and Joey Chaos devices.

Sure enough, video game designers use this information in their work…and now that you think about it, hasn’t the Burger King always creeped you out?

Now you know why.

Which bring us to John McCain.

Last night’s debate seemed to demonstrate a challenge McCain faces that transcends the words he says: his physical movement. He does indeed move stiffly, and he had odd gestures that detract from what he says.

But beyond that, he seems to have that weird laugh that he deploys for his own jokes…and having spent time talking to an audience—successfully and unsuccessfully—I can tell you that if you are laughing at your own jokes, you better not be the only one in the room doing the laughing.

He (and Palin) also add an odd “breathiness” to their voices when they are trying to emphasize a point, that, at least in my house, seems to be unnatural and offputting.

There’s also that smile: it appears forced. He never seems to be so much smiling as grimacing…and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him appear genuinely happy.

And, my friends, when he gets nervous, my friends, he seems to say “my freinds” way too much–to the point where it’s kind of…well, creepy.

So for today, a short story: McCain seems to be suffering from the same problem as the Burger King, and it’s not all his fault—but that having been said, it does seem to affect his ability to connect to a larger audience…and it may explain why Sarah Palin gets much better reactions—and larger crowds—when she goes out and delivers the same message to the same audiences.